By Brian Mahoney
The hopeful thinking among Lakers fans is that since the team is better, Kobe Bryant must be happier.
One problem: The Lakers aren't better. At least, not yet.
Los Angeles certainly looks to be an improved team, sitting right behind Phoenix for the Pacific Division lead. But the Lakers' 18-10 record was the same after 28 games as it was last season, when they limped to the finish after a number of injuries and ended up 42-40, getting knocked out by the Suns in the first round.
Perhaps that's why coach Phil Jackson doesn't get too excited about the Lakers' start, and won't predict how the Bryant saga will finish.
"You can't project the future, but you just know as a coach that adversity happens, guys get injured, things happen in a season and we experienced that last year," Jackson said.
Los Angeles got to 26-13 last season before the injuries started to set in. Lamar Odom missed 26 games with knee and shoulder injuries. Kwame Brown missed half the season, mostly because of ankle injuries, the same problem that forced Luke Walton to miss 22 games. Vladimir Radmanovic was out 24 games after separating his shoulder snowboarding.
That dropped the Lakers all the way to the No. 7 seed, and they were easily handed by the Suns in five games. Not long after, Bryant said he wanted to be traded, a statement he has never fully backed off.
Jackson thinks the Lakers are better equipped to handle their problems this season.
"We're watching our time on our starters, trying to eliminate hopefully mistakes that can happen that leads to injuries like Lamar and Kwame - and Kwame's been injured a lot of this year - but Luke Walton, so forth," Jackson said. "Radmanovic, can't do much about the situation that happened with him, he brought that on himself, but we've got a good bench this year that gives us some support and it helps us out a lot. Hopefully that'll be eliminated."
The better bench, the rapid improvement of third-year center Andrew Bynum, and the return to Los Angeles of Derek Fisher are among the biggest reasons the Lakers have higher expectations as they head into the new year - even though Jackson remains realistic.
"We have talent, and talent always doesn't produce exactly the chemistry or the whole package that you want to have," Jackson said. "But we certainly have the pieces that should be able to mature and grow into that."
If so, Bryant figures to stay happy. The Lakers have no desire to deal him, but Bryant can opt out of his contract and leave following the 2008-09 season. And as good as things seem to be going in Los Angeles for now, Jackson isn't sure they will stay that way enough to keep his superstar in town.
"Just that the idea that this team is going to satisfy Kobe's desire ... what he wants to accomplish," he said. "Kobe wants to win another championship and whether we're ready to move to that level or not, isn't apparent right now.
We have time to do it, but our players are young and so there's still playoff experience that this team needs, seasoning that they have to go through and ability to weather some tough games on the road."